There was loneliness in the sound of the wind and the murmur of the leaves. How easy would it be to pretend that I was the only human being on the whole Island?
I squeezed moss between my toes, soft and cold, reaching delicate parts of my feet. I was barefoot since I left my shoes on the edge of the Azure-Eye lake.
I had a quick swim in mind to clear my thoughts, but the icy water felt like daggers piercing my body. Instead, I followed the path leading to the mountains, to be as far from the crowd as I could.
My surroundings smelled like clove, oakmoss and pine, which was more pleasant than burning wood and the rough smoke that was filling my lungs not so long ago.
The night sky shined lively, all the shimmering stars fighting for attention while the moon escaped the spotlight as a barely visible crescent. Maybe it hid, ashamed of people’s behaviour? Not wanting to watch but not able to disappear completely either.
“I was looking for you,” Alayna said. She was graceful as always. Her steps too quiet for me to hear. Every movement perfectly planned. Majestic like a lynx that could be found in these mountains.
She was taller than me, it wasn’t always that way but seven springs ago, she grew so fast I wasn’t able to catch up.
Today her long dark hair was braided with sparkling silver, blue, yellow and purple. An imitation of the sky above. When she moved I would notice that her back was exposed with golden stars attached across her spine.
After all, it was the time of celebration. The Longest Night it was called. Every year, all cities and villages gathered in groups to hunt, feast and dance. Tradition said to start when the first star appears and finish with the sunrise.
The sun might be the symbol of life, but there’s a reason why we worship the night. Light is too obvious, too clean, with no place left for the imagination. But dark is a whole different story. The dark was filled with possibilities.
“The dreams are born in the night; therefore, every fulfilled wish is a new star.” I recited part of the child’s rhyme from memory, completely ignoring my friend. Not even looking in her direction anymore.
“After all these years how are you not over it?”
“How can one be over the blessing of being born on The Longest Night, with the first bright spark?” I asked bitterly.
Alayna gently touched my cheeks, all over covered with beauty marks; every single one of them shaped like star. Because of them, so painfully visible on my face, villagers named me as the Star-Kissed, Born from the Stars and a Wishgiver. Since no one else shared the same appearance in this world ruled by wishes, they saw me as a miracle, like a spark, marked by Goddess.
Too many nicknames, and with them was tangled my destiny, too heavy for my shoulders.
I shivered under Alayna’s touch.
“Leave me,” I whispered, sounding not at all convincing, even to my own ears.
I knew she would understand but I didn’t want to put her in the position where she would even need to think about such a topic.
“Truly, what’s wrong?” she continued.
Her concern was touching. The overwhelming feeling came, that I was no longer alone. I wanted isolation but clearly, I needed the opposite: company in my best friend, Alayna. No matter how far I ran, sooner or later she would be right behind.
“My dearest Alayna, always putting my well-being above everything else.” I tried to smile but she wasn’t having it.
“I’m still waiting.”
She wouldn’t give up. Not until I’d confessed.
I learned a long time ago that lying is never worth the effort. Lies are poison and truth the medicine of one’s soul.
“You know me. Just a little bit of treason here and there.” I shrugged.
She looked so deeply into my eyes, which were marked in the same way as my skin. Purple orbs against her brown ones, that were so common on the Island. Eye to eye, with no space to look away. Alayna was searching for what was hidden under my bravado. One of her brows raised in a silent calculation.
“Oh no,” she gasped while putting hands to cover her fully open mouth. “It’s your 21st Birthday and you don’t want to burn a wish.”
“Dreams are pointless.”
I crossed hands against my chest, feeling a little childish at my response, but not caring at the same time. It was healthy to remember our earlier years. Adulthood was dull. Childhood so much easier.
“Dreams are sacred,” she said. “People will not be happy.”
Happy was not the right word. In our reality wishes meant everything. They were the power that fed the land. The core of our being. The show of our will.
When we come of age, we have our shot to make our dreams become reality. Every year, a new wish. We write them on a piece of paper and then burn them in the fire. If they’re major and they come true, people believe they were the chosen ones, blessed by the Starlight Goddess herself.
“It will not work without faith. I don’t believe,” I said. “No matter if I would take a part in the gathering or stay here. I will make people furious.”
“Please, come back with me.” Alayna reached for my hand. I wasn’t sure if I should grab it or not.
“If not for them, do it for me,” she continued, her eyes pleading. Such a cheap trick and yet…
I sighed. “Let me grab my shoes. I don’t want to step into any animal’s excrement.”
The smoke from the bonfires made my eyes water. I tried to wipe my tears away before anyone got the wrong impression of the situation. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s fun even if I wasn’t keen on being a part of it myself.
I took a place with Alayna in the back, trying to hide from others in the sea of tables and bodies.
We joined Sage and Wesley, a lovely couple that I knew I could trust. They were wearing matching silk clothes. Deep-blue with a golden pattern of dots on the whole length. It wasn’t magic but with their every move it looked like it was. Whoever made their garments caught pieces of starlight in them.
“Nice hair,” said Sage pointing to my grey buns on both sides of my head, covered in glitter.
“Nice,” I paused, gesturing to them both. “Everything.”
She laughed at the response.
But truly, they were a view. It was so odd to see everyone dressed up in such expensive clothing when every other day they would wear plain brown pants or dresses, no colourful hair, no drawings of moons and stars on the faces to try imitating my uniquely shaped freckles.
“We need to succeed this time,” said Sage’s boyfriend. “We will not waste any chances to get Goddess on our good side.”
If only I could fake a smile I thought. It would come in handy now.
Spending money to get into the good graces of a higher power, what a waste it seemed. They could have done so many better things. They weren’t rich, but at the Longest Night, everyone wanted to pretend otherwise.
A waste, but was it? Looking at their smiling faces I wasn’t so sure anymore. Their eyes were sparkling with happiness. If the feeling could be bottled up and made into drink, no one in the village would ever be sad.
Wesley showed me and Alayna the piece of paper he was holding. His hands were shaking. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he started jumping.
The couple was hoping for a baby.
“Be a sec,” he said, taking Sage into his arms and running to the closest bonfire to burn their papers.
I followed them with my eyes until they became only a blur among the others.
On my left, Alayna was giving a portion of her food to the dog that was making eyes in her direction. The other animals noticed her and we were surrounded by cats, dogs and even chickens.
It was not only the animals that were loud. A lot of people were already drunk. The Nightfall wine was very popular; purple liquid with silver sparkles and moon-like petals.
On our left, we could hear a group screaming their wishes at the top of their lungs. Like it would make the Goddess hear them.
“I wish to cool my drinks with my touch only,” roared one.
“Ooh, and I wish to create food with a snap of my fingers!” The man raised his hands to make a point and yelled. “Snap, roast beef with potato in the sauce. Snap, strawberry cake.”
Alayna was laughing so hard she couldn’t breathe properly.
“Good luck with that one,” she commented. “Why do people wish for more than they could handle?”
Isn’t that the thing about us mortals? We never wanted to worship the night, we wanted to reach and conquer it. To be Gods and not its subjects. We think we deserve everything while giving as much as nothing.
“I’m more curious why he said snap, instead of simply doing it.” I said.
“Maybe this year I will ask for people to act smarter.”
I poured Alayna some Nightfall wine, trying not to spill any while my body was moving from uncontrolled laughter.
“That would be a waste,” I said. “This way the world is much more amusing.”
“For the Island to never get boring, Joya”
Alayna raised her glass for me to clash mine against it.
Our toast was simply for fun, not the kind of words we would burn. Unless we spent too much time enjoying our drinks, then who knows?
“For the Island to never get boring” I echoed. My glass reaching hers.
With every passing moment, more and more people were bumping into our table to take a glance at me or ask me to fulfil their dreams myself, like I could.
Later, Sage and Wesley came back, taking longer than a second like he said. Their cheeks were reddened, foreheads sweaty from all the dancing. Or maybe they wanted the burned papers to start their magic as soon as possible.
“Time is almost up,” said Sage just before the drum sounded, somehow sobering people and making everyone calm down.
Our Crownless Princess stepped into the heart of the gathering. Her dress was bone-white, a stunning contrast to her skin. I was surprised she didn’t get her gown dirty in the madness they were part of. On her head, I noticed a single moon decoration, almost like a diadem.
The Princess asked someone to help her get on top of the table. Her hair was cut short, and wild in the wind.
“Attention, good people! Attention!” She was speaking to the public, but I felt her burning gaze on me. Every word stabbed me with its meaning. “All that came of age are about to make their very first wishes.”
The Princess made a pause, knowing that people would want to chant at those words.
“Let’s see who was born for greatness and who was… not so much.”
I didn’t think of her words as a joke, but others certainly did judging from the wave of laughter.
“Welcome them with the sound of applause.”
I couldn’t breathe. It felt like my body didn’t belong to me. With every clap, the tightness of my chest became worse. Everything seemed a little fuzzy on the edges.
“Breathe,” my friend said. She squeezed my hand trying to comfort me. I was trying to ignore my situation for as long as I could, but my time came, and I wasn’t ready. More than any time before I wanted to swim in a lake till my limbs were numb.
I needed more than a comforting touch. It was time to go, but first I needed to ask Alayna one important question that I was always too afraid to ask.
“Last year, when you were in my place, what did you wish for?”
Last year, I had fun. Too much of it, one might have said. I lost myself in dancing, and by the time people of age were coming on stage, I was sleeping like a baby. I was ashamed of my behaviour, especially that I did it on purpose. Avoiding my problems by ignorance.
I was in a hurry. Half standing, with one foot in the direction of the bonfires, and half still leaning on our table.
Alayna smiled. She had a lovely mouth that was never meant for sadness. And Goddess knew, she never was sad. Goodhearted Alayna. She knew this moment would come. She waited a year.
“The same thing I want this year and the same thing I will always want.”
The crowd was getting impatient. From every side voices were coming:
“Come, the Star-Kissed,”
“Where’s Born from the Stars?”
I did my best to tune down everyone else but Alayna. Our eyes locked.
“Your friendship,” she said.
Her words hit me. I always knew the Longest Night was her favourite celebration. She was a perfect subject to the Island, unbound faith in the flesh. And yet she could have wished for anything and everything and she picked me.
“And I know that every year, it will come true,” she finished.
I had no time to answer her, or even react before a group of people came my way. I was no longer sure where was north or south. My heart was beating like crazy. But not with fear, with sudden realisation.
I had it all wrong!
The tradition made sense. I still wasn’t sure that the Island was feeding on our beliefs, that the sky was in charge of our wishes. The stars, as beautiful as they were, weren’t our desires either.
It all didn’t matter.
We all dream freely but we must pay for the results.
We can wish for anything we want. For the sun to rise just for us, flowers blooming in the blink of our eyes. If that’s what makes us happy. Dream an impossible dream. Sometimes it is not about the wish itself, but the possibility for them to one day become the truth.
We might want, like Alayna, for nothing to change, and knowing it never will, be happy with own our faith.
And there are also people like me – achievers. Setting goals that we want so badly, we might do anything that’s in our power to fulfil them. Dreaming big is not a bad thing. We need to aim just above our reach, not miles away. Reach what’s impossible at first, and with our every effort a bit closer.
The Princess came down from the table. Slowly, she made her appearance near me.
“A Wishgiver will become a Wishtaker,” she whispered in my ear.
I never thought she liked me. Like a fool, I was thinking she must despise me for all the rumours of me being the favoured daughter of the Island, not her, the rightful heir. But now her voice was sweet and soft. It rang true.
Her face wore a happy grin. She took my elbow gently and walked me herself to the front of a bonfire. It looked like I was about to be first from all other 21-year-olds in the queue this year.
Someone gave me the ink and paper to write my deepest desire. I knew right away what I would wish for, and with all my being I believed in it. I will do anything to make it true before the next Longest Night. No point in running away. Not anymore.
May the stars shine brighter, may the moon come out next time to shine on my victory.
The first wish is the most important one anyone could make. It defines you. You are either on the safe side or the one that might give you glory.
I wrote my note, but it wasn’t the one to read it. The voice of our ruler sounded strong and fierce but from up close, I could easily see her smirking.
“Let the paper burn, let the star be born. The Blessed by Night made her decision. May the Goddess with her own hands shape it true. That the world will hear of Joya, may she change the world for better.”
People seemed puzzled by my heart’s desire. But what were dreams for if you didn’t use them as much for the case of others as for yourself? I wanted to make a change.
When I put the piece of paper in the fire, I felt the heat licking my hand. It was no longer my enemy. I welcomed it as an ally. Even the smoke stopped bothering me.
“May you be safe on your way as well,” Crownless Princess said, quietly this time, only for me to know before leaving a brief kiss on my cheek.
“I promise, I will.”
I searched for Alayna. I was sure she was watching me and when I spotted her, I knew I would not be alone on my journey. We lived in the South but there was the whole Island in need of help, not only the folks I knew all my life.
A year is not much time, but who said the next year I couldn’t re-do my wish? And who said I didn’t have my whole life to do so?
Overjoyed, I looked up at the sky and a single star blinked at me. Without thinking I touched my cheek, I didn’t have a mirror, but I could swear I was missing one of my freckles.